Tag Archives: photography

Public photography in museums: a survey

14 Sep
The Coral Reef

The Coral Reef by Doilum, on Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal photography and museums recently. As a civilian photographer it’s become a habit to ask, as soon as I enter a museum, ‘what’s your photography policy?’ And while I’m frequently pleasantly surprised to find that the policy is ‘please take photographs’, I’m also often surprised to have to sign a contract or wear a special sticker to be able to take photographs in a (usually publicly-funded museum). It’s sometimes baffling, and a little frustrating.

At the same time, in my professional life I run more than a few Flickr pools, where I actively solicit photographs taken in or around my museum.This is a bog-standard activity for most museums these days, and for museum staff who prize ‘social’ (which is usually to say: online community-based) interactions with their audiences, photography can be very important.

In order to try to unpick this apparent contradiction, I recently disseminated a short survey to museum professionals in an attempt to understand the current status of public photography in museums. I particularly wanted to find out what the factors determining permission to take photographs are, and whether they were in flux. The sample wasn’t particularly large or scientific [1], but I think I got a large enough set of responses (52) to get a sense of some interesting answers. I asked four questions: results and short commentary follow; there’s a longer interpretation at the end.

As a civilian photographer, I found the results encouraging — it looks like the pendulum is swinging towards greater permission for photography. As a museum professional, I found it slightly less encouraging: I think there are some barriers to greater photographic freedom that I have less power over and will be harder to dismantle.

1. Is photography permitted in permanent exhibitions in your gallery?

Over half the museums responding indicated that photography was permitted, and that their understanding of ‘personal’ use included posting photos to social websites. Reasons for complication included loan objects in permanent collections, and official ambivalence:

“allowed for non-commercial purposes”

“officially it’s prohibited but staff are allowed to turn a blind eye”

2. Is photography permitted in temporary exhibitions in your gallery?

Temporary exhibitions present a very different picture. Prohibition and complication together form the majority of cases, with less than a quarter of museums freely permitting personal/social photography.

The reason for complication? Overwhelmingly, restrictions are external to the institution itself:

“depends on the owner(s) of the displayed objects”

“photographic restriction from the lender”;

“depends on the temporary exhibition and the policy of the lender of individual objects or whole exhibitions”

“depends on the restrictions required by borrowers”

“depends on any restrictions placed by artists, funders or lenders”

“some touring exhibitions don’t allow photography”.

The significant difference between permanent and temporary exhibitions suggests that this isn’t a conservation issue but one of intellectual property rights. Particularly where a temporary exhibition involves loans from multiple sources or commercial galleries and  contemporary artists, public photography seems tricky to broker. It probably isn’t at the top of most exhibition organisers’ priority lists either.

But is this a static state of affairs? I also asked:

3. Has your photography policy changed in the last three years?

The results suggest that the situation is in flux, and that museums and galleries are moving towards a more photographically permissive environment.

Lastly, I asked for general comments.

4. Is there anything else about photography in your gallery or museum that you’d like to add?

These fall into a number of categories.

Straightforward issues of access:

“Especially for paper objects it’s a wonderful non-damaging way for people to take copies away with them.”

Institutional complications:

“For loans from other institutions we need to change the policy”

A suggestion, opposed to the general utopian current of capturing and sharing, that photography might be a mildly antisocial activity:

“A lot of visitors do not even ask if photography is permitted, but assume that they have a right to photograph any thing that they wish. Are there any suggested formula for a notice explaining the restrictions especially if other visitors are captured in the shots”

The disproportionate use of institutional resources in policing any policy.

“It may be all well and good to have a policy but policing it, especially if restrictive, is another matter entirely! Resource intense”

An awareness of the online ‘social’ environment.

“We have several Flickr pools into which we invite images, some of which are of the venue/gallery”


“Very hard to stop now with the spread of smartphones.”

A recognition of the distinct natures of photography and museums (my personal favourite)

“photography posted online or in print is neither a substitute for the museum experience, nor threat to attendance”


What might all this mean? Photography is rapidly evolving as a digital and social artform. ‘Personal’ photographs aren’t kept in lonely handfuls in albums any more waiting for their annual viewing to relatives; they’re published, labelled, tagged and discussed, part of an ongoing flow of conversation involving text and images. Perhaps you could say that ‘interpersonal photography’ has replaced ‘personal’ photography.

Photography in museums can therefore also be a complex thing. When you’re taking a photograph, you could be doing any one of a number of things, not just ‘capturing’ but also interpreting. You might be:

  • Making a ‘copy’ of the artwork/object you’re looking at for later contemplation
  • Capturing a moment: the moment of the visit; or a temporary exhibition
  • Sharing the experience of visiting a museum with friends, communities of interest, and strangers
  • Interpreting a work or object that you’re looking at: using a photograph to understand what you’ve seen

The results of the survey seem to me to reinforce an almost cruel irony. The museum objects which you are allowed to photograph are often those least in need of personal capture and interpretation (they’re always there, many images of them already exist, they have been catalogued and interpreted) whereas the things that might benefit most from personal photography are those to which there is least access.

It’s quite easy to take pictures of objects at the V&A, for example: individual objects which are on permanent display and have already been photographed many times before.  By contrast, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s temporary exhibition at the Serpentine is large, complex, immersive and will soon disappear, but photography is strictly forbidden.[2] You just have to look at the selection of photos on Flickr taken in Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation to see the layers of meaning and interpretation that mass social photography can bring to a rich, allusive work of contemporary art.

The ubiquity of multipurpose mobile devices makes things more difficult. It’s going to be hard for museums to be plastering their objects and displays with QR codes at the same time as attempting to restrict the use of the only device that can make sense of a QR code (a digital camera).

Outside in the real world, street photography is booming, but pervasive digital imaging has also become cause for conflict. In some places photography is seen as an essentially suspect activity, framed by an ‘anti-terror’ agenda. The response from amateur photographers has been to organise pressure groups, and also to inform themselves of their rights, sometimes in the form of a ‘bust card’ that contains a lawyerly summary of photographers’ rights which can be used in negotiation with representatives of authority. Interestingly, this particular bust card includes a passage that could easily be taken to refer to most public exhibitions, whether permanent or temporary.

It is not an infringement of copyright to take photographs of buildings, sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship that are permanently situated in a public place or in premises that are open to the public.

So while the results of the survey seem to demonstrate that museums understand that the issue is ‘rights’ in the intellectual property inside the museum; whether this is compatible with the ‘rights’ of the public to capture and interpret their world, including its cultural heritage, through photography is less certain.

I’d be very interested to hear of others’ experiences and viewpoints, both from photographers and museum professionals. Post in the comments below, or talk to me on twitter.

[1] I disseminated the survey through my personal networks of professional contacts on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, The Museums Computer Group JISCMail list, and the Museum 3 community. The small sample was balanced, including both big and small museums, art galleries and social history museums.

[2] I’ve been inspired by this exercise to try and make a much clearer and more welcoming statement about photography for my own institution. (Now everybody else just has to do the same thing & make them machine-readable using a universally-agreed XML standard.)


Museum of codes

18 Mar

snake! by Joe Dunckley, on Flickr (2009)

Once I got the opening hours straight, I was straight over to what must be the very closest museum (as the crow flies) to my workplace. After a year in storage and transport, UCL’s Grant Museum has reopened in a new location, on University Street.

I never visited the Grant before it moved, but it seems the fundamental organisation of objects in glass cases and their labelling hasn’t changed (there’s a nice A-Z of pigeonholes by the entrance that are curatable, with aesthetic echoes of Keith Wilson’s Things and Mark Dion’s Welt Wissen installation).

The major change is the addition of technology. Primarily: the use of QR codes to identify and share information about objects; the use of iPads as interactive displays; and a framework which links in-gallery and online comments together into a ‘conversation’ about the objects. It looks like a relatively small technology budget has been used very imaginatively.

QR codes themselves I can take or leave. There seems to be some springtime of love in London for these curious 1990s Japanese throwbacks: everyone has them on their printed ephemera and posters. In the ‘looking cool’ stakes, they’ll soon be so over-used that by summer they’ll either look tacky or be invisible. Functionally: I recall Mia Ridge saying something about simple, quick paths to information, and if you have a smartphone (and a signal – no in-house wifi at the Grant) they do work as a simple trigger to open a webpage or application.

The iPads sit on a ledge at the bottom of the cases. In a custom-built app you can flick between a question, an opportunity to comment on that question, a QR code to identify the question that links it to others’ responses in the museum and online, and a live twitterstream (common to all iPads) of comments related to the Grant Museum as a whole.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the use of iPads is their function as a chameleon device: they’re small touchscreens that can do almost anything that you want them to. The first time I saw an iPad in gallery it was simply stuck to a wall displaying a short film on a loop, which had paused because the battery was running low. At the Grant, they’re properly mounted and power-tethered, and fulfilling a function most museum people probably think of as ‘kiosk’ (As in a small self-contained interactive. I had some discussion about whether my definition of a ‘kiosk’ or even ‘mini-kiosk’ was correct – the most persuasive argument against being that kiosks stand separately from the objects, where these iPads are intimately connected to the displays.)  Like PCs were twenty years ago, iPads might be powerful precisely because they ‘re mass-production objects that can easily emulate existing, known functions. But there’s absolutely nothing special about them being an iPad as such (that is: there’s obviously potential for generic tablet computers in galleries).

The questions asked on iPads I feel less enthusiastic about. Any visit to a museum sparks dozens of questions in my own mind that I’d rather discuss; though obviously germane to the displays, whether pets are preferable to wild animals isn’t really something I have an opinion about. I almost certainly fall into the category of over-involved as far as museums are concerned, though; and a good question can definitely be a spur to an interesting conversation.

However, the one question that provokes a (rather spiky) response from me via an iPad (I have to half-crouch down to use it) is this one:

Should science shy away from studying biological differences between races?

Studying the differences between people from different parts of the world was common in the past. Now, in more enlightened times, such science has become somewhat taboo, possibly due to the fear that conclusions would be drawn that could be considered racist. Should some topics be off-limits to science, when the potential outcomes are unknown? Is it racist to say that different races are biologically different?

Now there are genuinely interesting questions about race and science, that are particularly pertinent to the collection of Robert Grant, a thinker who influenced Darwin, whose own theories were influential on European attitudes to race.  But this is not one of those questions. It sets up an entirely false opposition between scientific ‘knowledge’ about race and subjective interpretations of racism, and precludes people (including me, with my spiky answer) from saying anything more interesting about anatomy, science and race.

The linking framework uses Tales of Things, a website/smartphone app that keys on QR codes to link personal stories to objects. Something like Bruce Sterling’s idea of a ‘spime‘, adding surplus aura to everyday objects is an interesting approach. It seems harder to join the dots once you’re outside the museum – you can contribute to the ‘race’ debate above directly on the Tales of Things website, but you have to know what you’re looking for. In addition there’s a Twitter hashtag (#GrantQR) which can get a bit meta-, as some of the conversations I was having about the technology after I visited have apparently been showing up on the iPads….

In fact, the most interesting conversation I had about interconnectedness came when I asked an invigilator whether it was OK to take photographs. Yes, for personal use only, I was told. The idea that ‘personal’ photography exists in opposition to ‘publishing’ photographs is, I think, a completely unsustainable proposition. Sharing is fundamental to the personal use of photographs now (and hurrah for that). Photography still causes anxiety in some museums – to take a photo is to take something away and potentially create your own node, your own focus for comment and discussion. At the Grant (very sensibly), the only concern seems to be commercial exploitation, and so after some consultation, I think we agreed that it would be OK to post the photos on Flickr under the appropriate noncommercial licence. And I’ll be back with my camera, because having been distracted by the technology, I didn’t even get as far as the Jar of Moles.

What’s going on here is very interesting – and testament to the benefits of being a university museum close to a Digital Humanities department on hand to help (rather than having to grow the expertise organically yourself, a huge challenge for small museums). Naturally, there are lots of places online to find out more:

QRator website
UCL Digital Humantities blog on the QRator project
Andrew Hudson-Smith’s blog on the project
Claire Ross’s blog on the project

Museum through a lens

7 Feb
Your work is forgotten...

Your work is forgotten.... by Bob and Roberta Smith

Street art constitutes the vast majority of what hangs on the actual walls of the museum without walls. Given the broad institutional boundaries and lack of restraints, it remains a wonder that there remains such a limited repertoire of subject and style. Graffiti doesn’t constantly surprise you any more than an art gallery does.

With street art, though, that normally redundant practice, taking two-dimensional photographs of flat objects,  is an important part of the game. Having abandoned your (anonymous) work to the vagaries of weather and municipal buffers, you can revel in its genuine ephemerality, but photography is evidence – published books of street art are documentation, not reproduction. And for the photographer, capturing a choice piece of work is not only part of exploring a new or familiar environment, but also of entering into a potential relationship with the artist. Publishing a photograph of something you found pretty and being told, after the fact, ‘that’s by Bobbyphonics’.

Less so in the gallery, where we already know what everything is, and are likely to take a picture of the label after the work, just so we get the metadata correct. But even in a gallery the visitor-photographer is more than a weak echo of the official installation photographer. Taking pictures in a gallery is performative: it records your own visit; it’s interpretive: photographs of objects from new angles and in new lights show new truths; and it’s also (without over-egging the ‘media’ part of that particular pudding) social: we can share photos of artworks we’ve seen as meaningfully as photos of people we’ve met.

At the Kinetica Art Fair, the third eye culture was in full effect. It was hard to walk from one stand to another without getting between an artwork and someone’s camera. The hectic atmosphere feels like a challenge to capture rather than regard, to take something away and create your own something out of it. Still, the nature of kinetic works seemed to provide a rare justification for cameras that record moving image, and for Flickr’s display of same.

But Kinetica is, after all, an art fair, somewhere transient, to shout and trade. In established museums and art galleries, official photography policies are moving more slowly. Object museums like the V&A lead the way because there are few ‘rights’ issues with historical and antique forms (unless they are particularly uncomfortable), but even contemporary art galleries are moving away from blanket ‘no photography’ policies.

But there are some unresolved issue about taking and using the photos. In Birmingham and Walsall this weekend, being allowed to take photographs meant: 1) signing a piece of paper saying that any photographs you took would be for ‘personal use’ only. 2) Being given a sticker with a picture of a camera on it to let gallery invigilators know you had signed said piece of paper. Even so, there were still some exceptions: the main floor of the Bob and Roberta Smith-curated ‘Inner Life of the Mind’ exhibition was strictly off limits because it contained ‘works from the Tate’ according to the main desk.

The restrictions on use suggest that the galleries understand that taking photographs can be an important part of visiting an art gallery; but that they’re still a little uncomfortable with the use of the actual photographs themselves (perhaps because the reproduction of artworks is embedded in a artworld system larger than small galleries; but also because digital photography has fundamentally changed the nature of photographs). Personally, I’m dubious about the validity of a contract I’ve signed but haven’t been given a copy of; and consider posting images on Flickr well within the bounds of ‘personal’ use.

And so all of which is really no more than being by way of introduction to four photo/video sets on Flickr of exhibitions and art I enjoyed over the weekend:

Kinetica Art Fair 2011
Street Art in Digbeth
Len Lye at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Bob and Roberta Smith at the New Art Gallery, Walsall

The Museum of Fascism

28 Jun
Repressió i Resistència by Arqueologia del punt de vista

Repressió i Resistència by Arqueologia del punt de vista

Travelling through Eastern Europe, or at any rate through the countries of the ‘former Soviet bloc’ you encounter memorials and museums of the communist regimes, and of their overthrow. Though they vary widely, from Romania’s passionately Christian and anti-communist memorials to the DDR Ostalgie of the Berlin tourist trail, they also carry a similar air of commemorating a regime that existed within living memory, and requesting a commitment of conscience to preserving its replacement, democracy.

Not so much in Western Europe, where WWII memorials exist but the moral continuity of regimes since 1945 is assumed, and any mention of democracy concentrates on national efforts to defeat the fundamentally external force of Nazism. Coming across Barcelon’a Democratic Memorial, then, is a sharp reminder that for most of the period between the end of the Second World war and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iberian peninsula, a substantial chunk of non-Soviet Europe, languished under a fascism supposedly defeated with Hitler.

The Museum itself uses multimedia presentations to illustrate the fall of Francoism and contemporaneous world events, but its main effort this summer is the installation of large reproductions of photographs taken in public spaces under Franco’s regime in those same places. It seeks to emphasise the role of public space and its control under a dictatorship and to return history to public spaces. The accompanying leaflet describes the photographs as an ‘intervention’ but the public too are capable of making their own interventions: a photo of Franco in a motorcade by Barcelona cathedral rapidly picks up insulting and angry graffiti.